BISMARCK - For more than two decades, sisters Edna Schwab and Evelyn Schwab have proudly led tourists through the boyhood home of their uncle, famous bandleader Lawrence Welk, the "King of Champagne Music."
But the music stops Sunday, the last day the 6-acre homestead near Strasburg will be open in private hands before the State Historical Society takes over operations on July 1.
"It's hard. Sometimes I have to blink back a tear when I think about it," Evelyn Schwab said in a phone interview Tuesday from her home a few miles from the homestead. "But we had a good 25 years, and the time has come when some younger generation has to take the reins now."
All 22 Welk family members with interest in the property have signed an agreement allowing the state to purchase it for $100,000, Historical Society Director Claudia Berg said. She had yet to sign the agreement Monday.
"All the papers for the most part are completed, and we're just waiting to verify that all the repairs on site have been done," she said.
The state Legislature appropriated $100,000 in 2013 to buy the site, requiring that certain repairs be completed first. The State Historical Board narrowly voted in January 2014 to purchase the property, which sits about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck and had been on the market for about 2½ years before the board voted 6-5 to buy it.
Sale negotiations dragged on over the past 18 months.
"To tell you the truth, we weren't real happy with the state the way it's been lingering on and on and on," Evelyn Schwab said. "After three years, it's about time, I think, and I wasn't very happy with them. There was very little communication. But anyway, so it will be."
Lawmakers also approved $100,000 in April to operate the site during the 2015-17 biennium. Berg, who succeeded Merl Paaverud as director after he retired last November, said the operating funds will cover some salary costs and site improvements needed to address accessibility requirements. An undetermined amount of money will come from the agency's general operating budget for exhibits, she said.
The Historical Society is developing interpretive and exhibit plans for the site that will be implemented over the next two years to showcase pioneer farming and homesteading and the Germans from Russia who settled the area, using the Welk family as an example.
"So we won't lose Lawrence Welk in the story, but we will be giving more attention to the German-Russian culture and the agricultural story, which are both important stories and aren't addressed at any of our other (56 historic) sites," she said.
Berg hopes visitation will increase as new exhibits are added and the state ramps up advertising and marketing. Roughly 650 people signed the guestbook last year at the site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"We can see over the next several years the site developing and becoming a destination for south-central North Dakota," she said.
The Historical Society will employ two interpretive staff and a maintenance worker to run the site from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, consistent with the hours currently kept by Pioneer Heritage Inc., the community service organization that runs the site. Admission also will remain at $5 per person.
"It should really be a seamless experience for the visitor," Berg said.
North Dakota State University history professor Tom Isern and some of his students repaired the barn at the site, which also features a summer kitchen, granary, buggy house, blacksmith shop and outhouse. The Tri-County Tourism Alliance and other area residents also pitched in with painting and shingling, and a lot of the materials were donated, Berg said.
"So, it's been a big community effort, she said.
Evelyn Schwab, 85, said she's pleased with the repairs, noting Pioneer Heritage was holding a picnic Tuesday evening for the volunteers who helped out.
"It's spruced up very, very nice," she said.
Welk, who died in 1992 at age 89, was born in the house in 1903 and left the family farm at age 21 to pursue a music career that saw him rise to host of "The Lawrence Welk Show," which aired on ABC from 1955 until 1971 and later ran in syndication.
"Naturally, there's bittersweet feelings," Evelyn Schwab said. "And at the same time, the time has come where we can't take care of it anymore, and this way the legacy will live on."